File photo.

A ridesharing service for seniors and people with disabilities is raising fares for the first time in two decades and capping the number of trips members can take each month.

The Big Blue Bus’s on-demand service moved into the digital age last July, replacing its Dial-a-Ride program with a partnership with Lyft that has doubled the number of rides taken each day under the same $600,000 budget and $0.50 one-way fares. Any verified Santa Monica resident over 60 or older than 18 with a disability can use the service to travel within city limits, parts of Venice and Los Angeles medical facilities during regular business hours and in the morning and early afternoon on weekends.

Fares haven’t changed since 1997, but with a record 1,900 people signed up for Mobility On-Demand Every Day (MODE) taking almost 6,000 trips each month, City Council voted Tuesday to raise fares to sustain the fast-growing program, which is adding 80 to 100 new members each month. Fares currently offset about two percent of MODE’s operating costs.

“This was a hard solution to find,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown. “We’re the victims of our own success in having devised a program that has increased demand. It may just be a little bit inevitable that we do some changes in the rates.”

The regular fare will rise to $1.50 starting in September. Next January, it will increase to $2 and then to $2.50 the year after.

Low-income MODE customers will pay $0.75 per ride until January, when their fare will increase to $1. In January 2022, it would increase to $1.25.

Personal care attendants, friends and companions would ride for free. 

Riders would only be able to take 30 trips each month instead of the current 40 and only seniors 65 and older would be able to register for the program. 89% of members are older than 65, but the new age limit would not affect younger members who are already enrolled.

“I’m interested to hear how the cap goes and if a lot of folks are bumping up against that cap,” said Councilmember Terry O’Day. “I’d be interested in a higher age limit, 69 for example, in future changes to the program.”

BBB received input for more than 60 MODE members before presenting the fare hikes and trip cap to City Council. The majority opposed the changes or suggested that BBB look for other funding to sustain the program.

Despite those concerns, the council decided to raise fares and try to keep the program affordable for low-income seniors.

To qualify for low-income fares, members must enroll in Los Angeles County’s Low-Income Fare is Easy (LIFE) program, which gives seniors an $8 discount on transit passes each month or 20 free bus and/or rail trips. An individual with an annual income of $36,550 or less or a two-person household making $41,800 or less is able to qualify.

73% of registered MODE members will qualify for LIFE, based on the incomes they reported to BBB. MODE will enact a 90-day registration freeze from August to October so staff can help the more than 1,000 members expected to sign up for LIFE navigate the enrollment process.

“We should take extra care in getting those members over to (LIFE) because it really mitigates the fare increases,” said Councilmember Greg Morena.

Even with the fare hikes and temporary enrollment freeze, the program is sure to continue growing apace, BBB staff said. The agency will pursue grant funding and look for other ways to fund the program. Staff will return to the council with a plan to expand the program and potentially hire a full-time MODE administrator.

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